Even amid the sunshine of the early Blair years, Scottish devolution presaged the onset of across-the-board political dysfunction in Britain. A perfect storm has, nevertheless, befallen relations between Westminster and Holyrood of late, unforeseen by even the most quixotic among nationalists – the fate of the United Kingdom has, in the Scottish political imagination, become inextricably bound up with the broader European question.
The ferocity of this shift cannot be underestimated. Whereas Northern Irish affairs were always a landscape alien to English sensibilities, the situation in Scotland was, until recently, pleasantly intelligible, merely differing in the fine print from the coy, prudent politics of its powerhouse neighbour. As late as the mid-2000s, Labour found the country a reliable anti-Tory stronghold; even the electoral setbacks of 2007 and 2011 did not invite predictions of the party’s imminent demise there. The upset of the 2015 general election, which saw the Scottish National Party’s conquest of 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, shall go down as the enduring legacy of that year’s cycle, a feat rendered all the more unlikely in the face of the SNP’s failings elsewhere – their last bid for independence flopped decisively.
Often misunderstood (and, as its rivals have discovered, woefully underestimated), the SNP might attribute its success to the decline of several local political consensuses. Thatcherism, and its associated culture of deindustrialisation, undermined the regional Conservative Party. This, coupled with the resultant mitigation of the sectarian dynamic prevalent within Scottish politics, fostered a Labour ascendancy, at a time when the party found its fortunes frustrated south of the border. This renewed dominance was, perhaps, always destined for provisionality (the SNP, at the time a motley coalition of trade union elements, Celtic nationalists and dryer autonomist interests, had already shown itself a force capable of ephemeral victories), but the swift, dramatic end it would ultimately meet was anticipated by none – one might even interpret devolution itself as an opportunistic venture of Blair’s, with an eye to securing the Labour vote in Scotland.
Scotland’s pro-European inclination (its pro-Remain majority in June was easily the least ambiguous of the referendum’s results) is a partisan idiosyncrasy more than it is an authentically national one – courtesy of the Labour Left’s Eurosceptic campaign, the 1975 plebiscite on EEC membership delivered a decidedly more equivocal mandate there. Brexit allows the SNP to cast the Scottish nation as an internationalist bulwark against the ‘backward’, ‘chauvinistic’ tendencies of their English counterparts. Indeed, their line has proven music to the ears of a certain class of liberal Anglos (understandably enough, the contrarian might add – the notion of a buccaneer Caledonia free of the dictates of a post-Brexit Britain stuck in its own dreams has a certain appeal, and, at any rate, makes for a perverse counterweight to Brexiteer fantasies).It is no coincidence, however, that proposals for Scottish independence rarely amount to much more than inexplicit, sentimental musings – the SNP leadership does not actually want it. Just as Brexit negotiations will foist upon patriotic Britons a reckoning with their own national limitations, the realities of independence would fall critically short of grandiose nationalist pronouncements to date. The decline of the global oil price has virtually negated whatever a financial case one might have made for secession, and Scotland runs a ruinous budget deficit (one that would, in fact, disqualify it from EU membership).
The diplomatic daredeviltry of Nicola Sturgeon, et al, reflects an unspoken program that lies, nevertheless, in plain sight – one that, if implemented, would fundamentally transform the political character of the Union. The SNP has offered to jettison its express desires for a second independence referendum in return for concessions from Westminster on Brexit, permitting Scotland a special relationship with the single market. This is, to say the least, a striking proposition, especially given it is totally without precedent (the EU has never made an individual deal with a region or constituent-country, and the logistics of such a compact would be nightmarish, at any rate).
The trade-off sought by the SNP is, in fact, strictly internal – this will only become apparent when, in the near-future, the party need not keep to any pretences regarding Scottish ‘concerns’ for Brexit. Its threats having forced Theresa May into a compromising position, Holyrood will press for guarantees to the effect of ‘independence-lite’ – full fiscal autonomy within the Union, with the devolution of those last few powers vis-à-vis expenditure and taxation not already delegated to Scottish authorities (they already manage roughly 70% of Scottish spending). Although such times as these have a habit of inviting extravagant proclamations, this would be among the most significant constitutional reorientations in British history, ultimately ensuring the demise of the UK as all but a loose confederation with a military and monarch in common.